Rapper Sess 4-5 opened the Nuthin But Fire record store after Katrina and offers everything from local mixtapes to CDs and old vinyl. Photo by Cheryl Gerber It looks like rumors of the demise of the record store have been greatly exaggerated. The death knell of the physical music-selling establishment has been echoing in the media for years now. Why take up space with bulky records and CDs when a collection of music that could fill a spare bedroom now fits in a player smaller than a pack of cigarettes? Online music retailers and file-sharing sites offer not only new tunes for download, but also obscure and out-of-print albums that may never even have made it to CD now exist in cyberspace. And then there's the advantage to the pocketbook. A full album on iTunes rarely costs more than $9.99. The overhead for production, packaging and shipping puts the retail value of a CD version at a record store if you can find one up to at least three or four dollars more. Even the national holdout Tower Records threw in the towel last year. How New Orleans will fit into this brave new digital world has been ambiguous. As a rule, we've always been pleasantly behind the times or more accurately, indifferent to the times. But the economic aftermath of Katrina forced the closure of most of the city's indie music retailers, including Odyssey Records, Peaches (which is rumored to be reopening in the former Tower location on South Peters Street), Magic Bus, Brown Sugar, and local branches of Tower and Virgin Records the last a major blow to anyone who wanted to buy a top-40 album and didn't have transportation to the suburban outposts of Borders and Best Buy. The stalwart Louisiana Music Factory, with its specialty selection and online trade, stays afloat, as does the Mushroom. Whether or not record stores are economically viable elsewhere, Katrina threw an extra wrench in the mechanism and made it seem like record stores were a luxury the recovering city couldn't afford.
A few optimistic retailers think differently. Just over a year ago, Matt Knowles opened Domino Sound Record Shack on Bayou Road just off of North Broad Street in Mid-City, and according to his staffers, business is going well. Knowles stocks the kind of carefully curated, eclectic collection that outs him as a major crate-digger. The selection ranges from vinyl DJ singles of local rap to vintage Jamaican rocksteady LPs to New Orleans soul to classic and current punk rock mostly on vinyl, with some CDs and even a rack of cassettes. "Rebuilding and a return to normalcy requires good music," Knowles said on the eve of his grand opening. A year later, he admits he's been treading water but so far staying afloat. "If I had really thought about it before I opened, I probably wouldn't have opened," he says. "But people are pretty loyal, and they keep coming back."
Scott Wells agrees. The longtime employee of the Nashville used-records chain the Great Escape opened Skully's Records on Bourbon Street the week after Thanksgiving, and things are going well, he says cautiously,
'Before the storm we had Tower and Virgin and Magic Bus, places to buy music that wasn't Cajun and zydeco," he says, noting that without the market vacuum created by the departure of the big guns, indie stores like his would hardly be viable. "Afterward, I was jonesing for good music so I decided to do it myself, and I discovered a lot of people wanted the same thing. To go see a band and not be able to go buy the CD in town seemed ridiculous."
The storefront, which Wells mans solo from noon until 8 p.m. daily, is hardly larger than your average bathroom, with every inch of space utilized to display almost all-new CDs and vinyl albums.
'A lot of people think I'm just going to have gay music, because of where I am," he says, mentioning Britney, Whitney Houston and dance music. "I kind of opened the store that I want to shop in. I don't listen to any one type of music, and the store kind of represents that." A quick scan of the thoroughly lined walls does reveal some club dance compilations but also Edith Piaf, James Booker, Amy Winehouse and the Detroit Cobras.
'I think a lot of people still want to come in and browse [in a store]," Wells says. "The locals in the Quarter have been wonderful," he adds. Some regulars come in every week to take advantage of Wells' overnight ordering.
At his year-old shop, Nuthin But Fire Records on North Claiborne and Elysian Fields avenues, the rapper Sess 4-5 is also building relationships as much as selling discs. The 30-year-old has been in the local music business since his high school classmate, the rapper Daddy-O, came back to school with a brand-new album. As a teenager, Sess started out guesting on mixtapes by local artists like Daddy-O and the L.O.G, and selling his own recordings on burned CDs in parking lots and outside of gas stations. Nuthin But Fire was started in 2002, mostly to put on hip-hop shows and events. Sess promoted one of the first rap shows to take place in New Orleans after the storm, hosting Cheeky Blakk and L.O.G. at a West Bank club in fall 2005. Now, the shop he opened in June 2007 in partnership with the rapper 6th Ward Pook, is the headquarters for a production company, a record label and the monthly hip-hop networking event Industry Influence, which Nuthin but Fire hosts along with Q93.3-FM DJ Wild Wayne.
'When I came back after Katrina, the ground was still wet. It was gray; it wasn't livable," says Sess. "People needed the music to be sane, but there wasn't any venues and there wasn't anywhere to buy music. I would set up just by a gas station and sell my CDs out of the trunk, and people would always come and ask for other people's music." Sess called up friends and expanded his stock to include their releases, but he got frustrated when business owners asked him not to sell in front of their stores. "So I decided to get a spot where they can't tell me I can't sell CDs," he says.
With the store as a base of operations, Sess and Pook have continued to promote shows locally, as well as putting out seven mixtape compilations of tracks by local artists on the Nuthin But Fire label. The Industry Influence event, which usually consists of a speaker, a panel discussion, an open mike for questions and a live music showcase, is seven months old.
The store's selection is more far-reaching than the Nuthin But Fire roster. The glass display case is full of local releases; the wall behind it boasts an up-to-date array of hip-hop, R&B and soul top 40, and stacks of used vinyl lean up against the walls. One corner has Little Richard, Mary Wells and the Chi-Lites; the other, last month's releases from Webbie and Erykah Badu. A display of hand-painted sneakers is propped against one wall underneath a rack of oversize T-shirts decorated with glitter.
'When we came up with the idea of doing a store, we definitely wanted to do the original mixtape underground type stuff. But also, we were one of the first record stores that opened back up in Orleans. We wanted to provide music for everyone. So we've got the gospel, the R&B, the oldies-but-goodies, hip-hop, local, West Coast, everything," Sess says.
Particularly with the way hip-hop tracks are often distributed via download now, it seems Sess might worry about the shelf life of his store, but he doesn't.
'We have a movement. It ain't just a record store," he grins. "But people buy records. Some people aren't into iPods yet. And some of them are too old to be getting into iPods."
Wells agrees. "I have found that a lot of people still want to buy a hard copy, even if they're going to put it in their iPod," he says. Even the production end of the industry is getting back on the bandwagon, he notes. Underground labels have always stuck with vinyl releases, but now more and more mainstream artists Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige and the Raveonettes among them, are putting out vinyl records, sometimes with card inserts bearing a code that allows the buyer to download a digital version of the album as well.
'I'm pretty archaic when it comes to the way music is presented," admits Knowles. "I still don't even have a CD player and I couldn't download a song if my life depended on it." Biased though he might be, Knowles is a firm believer in the draw of the record store.
'If you go to a record store," he says, "you can flip through and find things you never knew existed. I don't think you can do that with download."
Sess also believes in the Proustian experience that can take place among the discs. "People come in here and see all the styles and genres, and remember the moments they had when the disc came out and that time in their lives," he says. "The music shapes who you are."